Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Feliney report

We received a vicious holographic postcard in the mail last week.

Tomorrow we leave for Bavaria to take revenge.

(The identity of the senders has been protected only to ensure that vengeance will be ours, and ours alone.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tallarín de Pollo con Salsa de Espinaca

Ever since we bought the huge bag of spinach in our freezer, we've been trying to add it to our dinners. Our most successful attempts have been variations on the following recipe (which is South American, for the record). It's a flexible recipe and it takes new flavors and spices well. I will make it for you if you come visit.

Tallarín de Pollo con Salsa de Espinaca
Serves 4

1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped scallions (white part and 1 inch of the greens)
8 ounces fresh white mushrooms
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
8 fresh basil leaves, cut into ribbons, or 1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
10 ounces frozen chopped spinach, cooked drained and squeezed dry
(though actually, I've never pre-cooked the spinach and it's always turned out fine)
2 cups cooked chicken, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup whipping cream or half-and-half
1 10-ounce package spaghetti or fettucine
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

1. Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the scallions and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Sir in the parsley, basil, salt, and pepper. Add the spinach, chicken, tomato paste, and cream and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for a couple of minutes. Taste for salt and pepper.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the spaghetti, stir, and cook to al dente. Drain thoroughly and transfer to serving bowl. Top with sauce, sprinkle with Parmesan and serve immediately with extra Parmesan on the side.

From my favorite cookbook The South American Table.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Feeling generic

Okay, you're in the grocery store, faced with the routine decision between a product from trusted national brand (say, Kraft) and the cheap knock-off version (such as President's Choice, Spartan, Lucerne, Walgreens, etc.). Which one do you pick? If you're a reflective shopper, it can get complicated. Generic cheese? Can be nasty. Generic paper towels? Only when feeling cheap. Generic food storage bags (i.e., Ziploc® bags)? Yes. (One sure thing: If you're ever in a pinch, and the Ben & Jerry's isn't on sale for two for $5, Walgreen's ice cream isn't half bad.)

[short aside] One time, I met this woman on the El named Joyce. Between messy handfuls of chips and sips of Coke, she leaned over and said conspiratorially (and I believe without irony) "They call that sugary stuff breakfast?" I followed her gaze to a couple eating doughnuts out of a white paper bag. I shook my head neutrally.

Our train camaraderie thus cemented, she decided to quiz me on the cost of her Aldi purchases. The last item was a big roll of paper towels. "How much?" she shouted, as we entered the noisy underground part of the red line. "Ninety nine cents," I suggested reasonably--too reasonably. She looked disappointed. "These are nice paper towels! Really thick." I think I revised my estimate, but still came in too low. If my memory serves me right, they were about $2.99, so I had a hard time looking impressed.

Who really knows if Aldi is really saving anyone money or just tricking people into thinking so because they're buying things off a dirty pallet? [end short aside]

We haven't escaped the name-brand/generic conundrum by fleeing to Switzerland either. However, we don't have to be confused by the clever appellations (like "Walprofen") or flashy marketing. Every generic item at our local Migros has the same clearly identifiable green pattern and is conveniently priced in large bold numbers:

If you're going generic, there's no hiding it. Like the Jolly Green Giant, they'll see you coming to the checkout with your budget foods from aisles away. But I have no shame, the quality of almost all of the Migros foods we've eaten so far as been great! Not to mention we can pretend we're part of the Dharma Initiative.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Our favorite cream

Looks like another successful product placement for The Heidi Foundation.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Una vigna vicina

On a pleasantly dreary walk this morning, I discovered a vineyard near our house!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Stranieri stupidi

An incomplete compilation of dumb things we have done (in addition to ordering a sardine pizza on our first day, which doesn’t count, because we were very tired):

1. Despite careful examination of the washer in the laundry room of Centro Cristiano, we couldn’t figure out how to open the door. We tried all the usual techniques - pulling at the corners, pushing in on it to make it spring back, putting in some money... but nothing. Every moment we stood there haplessly poking at it, we felt lamer. Eventually, when we couldn't bear it any longer, we trudged away, defeated, with our dirty laundry (completely baffling the woman who had come down at that moment to do her laundry).

2. The orange button appeared to me in a vision overnight, so I returned the next morning, certain of how to proceed. My laundering success was short-lived, however: somehow I managed to interrupt the cycle 10 minutes early. Too embarrassed to admit this to the two women standing nearby (or to myself), I piled the clothes into a big soggy heap and bear-hugged them all the way up three flights of stairs. (I changed my clothes before I went out to discreetly wipe up the trail of drips.)

3. When the checker told us we forgot to get the sticker for the produce we wanted to purchase, we just looked dumbly back at her, literally until she went and got the sticker for us. (We then went home and learned how to say “you’re very nice” for future such occasions of brain malfunction.)

4. On our first visit to IKEA, we spent more than a few minutes venting about what a dumb, expensive country Switzerland was because the shopping cart cost 2 CHF to use. On the second visit we started counting up how much money we'd be spending on SHOPPING CARTS in two years.  Then we saw someone return her cart and get her 2 CHF back.

5. Walking back from the grocery store one day, someone in a car stopped to ask us for directions. We were both simultaneously excited that someone was addressing us directly, and dissapointed, knowing we had no way to help. Swiss Mr. paused for a moment, then responded in Italian (I quote): “Excuse me, I don’t speak Italian, thank you.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


“The Indians aren’t able to stop immigration – today they live on reservations.”

Sunday was election day for the Swiss parliament and it seems the country's heading right. The Lega dei Ticinesi did fairly well in our canton of Ticino and the UDC/SVP Swiss People’s Party was also successful (their sheep ad was recently deemed racist by the UN, but they maintain it’s just a figure of speech which refers to the “criminal foreigners” they want to deport). They received about 27% of the vote, enough to cause a bit of an upset in the usually balanced Parliament. Support for the Swiss People’s Party comes mostly from those who want less government control and nothing to do with the EU.

So, although Swiss Mr. enjoys spending a good amount of time suggesting ways we can disrupt the social order while we are here, as foreigners, I believe we’ll have to be on our best behavior – especially after we “announce” our presence at our local government building, as we have been instructed to do. We’ve been putting that off, not really knowing what is involved. I think we get health insurance and they put our names on a local bulletin board for all to see (for civilian watchdog groups, no doubt). The churches already know we are here – bulletins in the mailbox makes it feel just like home!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Monte Brè

This weekend we took a visit to our mountain neighbor, Monte Brè. Along with some varilingual European tourists, we took a series of funciular rides up to the top. (Unlike our European counterparts, however, we only paid half-price, being residents. ha ha!) We decided to save the longer hikes for another time and instead took a short walk over to the little town of Bre.

It was just what you might hope a little mountain town in southern Switzerland to be: rustic and italianate, quiet and charming. I did not see any catholic clergy there, but it seemed like the serene, serious sort of place they might like to hang out and be reflective.

Hunger brought us to a nearby grotto, where, feeling a bit like hobbits, we ate some risotto with mushrooms, local meats, and beer. We've learned grottos are very characteristic of southern Switzerland -- imagine Moody's pub crossed with your grandmother's basement and add some taxidermy. The atmosphere is very informal and the food looks and tastes like home cooking. We weren't quite as ebullient as the other families packed in at the other tables, but we had a very nice time.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sicurezza svizzera

Perhaps you have wondered whether we have a Swiss bank account yet. Affirmative. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough money to obtain an account which requires retinal scans or fingerprinting (or guarding by goblins). Instead, we have the “UBS Welcome” package, which gives us a year of fee-free use.

Although this may seem (and is) a modest banking package, it has an impressive secure access system which makes the security on our Chase account back home seem like twist-tie. In addition to the best security award, UBS also wins the prize for sending us the most mail (at least 6 separate deliveries) to inform us of various passwords and instructions for using the account. Here is the most recent delivery of the online banking materials:

The online banking process is a bit, shall we say, complicated:

1. Insert access card (different from the bank card) into the back of the “calculator.”
2. Enter PIN number (different from bank card PIN) on the keypad.
3. Go to web site and enter agreement number (different from account number) on the login page.
4. Web site generates an “input number”
5. Enter this number back into the calculator to generate a “code”
6. Enter the code into a field on the web site.
7. Click login.

I’m sure this will eventually be convenient.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Tainted by Rick Steves?

I am a a big fan of Rick Steves. We became good friends during that period last spring when we had three PBS stations and I could watch him every night. In general, I think he's a pretty smart tourist (even though he brings less underwear than he needs with the plan to wash it in the sink).

But Rick Steves is not a big fan of Swiss cities, I've gathered from reading his 2007 guidebook. Having vistited a grand total of zero other cities outside Lugano, I can't yet verify if he's correct or not. A Swiss newspaper does not think so, as I found when perusing Rick's website recently:

I like the part about having a "fine nose at adapting the concept of fast food to travel." Huh?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


A Swiss political party's recent campaign ad for national “security” caused a big stir, especially around the rest of Europe, where, as far as I can tell, Switzerland is frequently given the eyebrow, if not viewed with outright suspicion. A friend had mentioned the ad prior to our departure, but somehow I was still surprised to see it on our second day in Lugano. Regrettably without a camera, I had to wait a week or so to return and furtively snap a shot. In the meantime, riots had broken out in Bern at a political rally, and nearby in Lugano, someone had added a bit of commentary to the poster!

I’ve been enjoying the creative graffiti around town, especially on the political billboards – a well-placed Hitler mustache, I must admit, really gives me a giggle (even if maybe it shouldn’t). Until I can read newspapers and/or get regular Internet access, I don’t suppose I’ll be able to learn much more about the political situation except through these billboards, so I’ve been reading carefully.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


The Swiss Mr. and I – friendless, internetless, TVless, landlineless – have found ourselves recently with a good deal of additional time on our hands. The contrast with our former life in Chicago is a bit shocking when I think about it (or when I dream about it, as I’ve been wont to do lately). We’ve come up with some creative methods of coping – one of them being dessert.

The dairy section in our local Migros grocery store is huge, even when you exclude the cheese. This, as you will no doubt realize, pleases me to no end. And close investigation of this section has revealed a trove of creamy dessert duos, by which we can entertain (and educate, of course) ourselves. Our first foray – the Bonne Maman crème brulee – was not even very successful, but still turned out to be very tasty. The participation required on our part to prepare the crispy caramelized topping was just what we were looking for to break up those long hours after dinner before one can go to bed in good conscience.

(as you might notice these were taken at our rather dim first appartamento!)

Monday, October 15, 2007

The hunt for “queso fresco” continues

When I lived in Spain, I lived with a wonderful family who graciously served me hundreds of meals during my stay. It is their custom to eat a late, light dinner, which we generally followed with some nice long conversation. During this time, my host mother Loli would often bring out some fruit and cheese (often “queso fresco”). After she found out how much I liked the particular cheese, she would bring it out after every meal and force me to eat some (she took a lot of pride in the weight I gained during my stay in her house). Of course, I could never resist, because I loved it. Loved it.

Since then, I have examined the cheese selection in every country that I’ve visited, hoping to find something remotely similar. The closest I came was the “queso fresco” in Mexico, but it was not nearly young or soft enough. I was elated to find some “formaggio fresco” here in Lugano recently and just today brought it out to for lunch. This cheese was spreadable, slightly gritty, and also tasted like horseradish (in my excitement to purchase the cheese, I missed the “al rafano” in smaller lettering below “fomaggio fresco”). Yummy, but disappointing.

So, I will continue my pleasant quest to find a cheese similar to the queso fresco I grew fat on in Spain. Whenever I asked for more details about the cheese, Loli would simply say it was fresh cheese from cow’s milk, baffled by my confusion. It is similar to fresh mozzarella (of which there’s plenty here) but somehow lighter, milder. It’s a cheese you could eat with anything, ad infinitum. It’s a cheese that, among other things, will bring me back to Spain someday.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ho alcune domande.

Having procured permanent accommodations just northwest of Lugano centro and the lake (15-20 minutes walking), it now seems possible to contemplate things slightly less mundane than cell phone plans or which color wood to choose during our IKEA binge (we went with “betulla“ throughout). Some of my current puzzlements include: How can a pack of post-it notes cost the equivalent of USD 10? What are the people doing in their homes all weekend closed up behind their blinds? How can the cheese section of one small store be so huge (associated: in what manner do the luganese eat all these cheeses?)? Where does Lugano fall on the political spectrum of the country? Why doesn’t anyone bike?

I suppose I will have more questions than answers for quite a long time, especially not knowing much of the language just yet. (The student in me wants to learn the language thoroughly, systematically, the way they’d teach it in school, but I’ve had to hold off on that to memorize some practical phrases and words first, since we do actually have to function here. I’ve never had to spend time somewhere not already knowing or possessing a basic knowledge of the language to help orient me in most settings – it’s pretty humbling.) Although I’m dying to come to some quick conclusions based on a few observations, I’m determined to hold back, having recently identified this stereotyper tendency within myself as generally inaccurate and limiting. So for now, I’m doing my best to enjoy the developing plot.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Festa d'autunno

After seeing an ad on the bus, Swiss Mr. and I decided to attend the Lugano autumn festival down in Lugano centro last weekend. Although one of our guidebooks told us “little girls throw flowers from blossom-covered floats and oxen pull festooned wagons in colorful procession,” we missed seeing any floats, flowers, or even any noticeable quantity of little girls. Wrong festival? Or maybe we did not get up early enough for that. We did see many little booths selling meats, cheeses, honey, homemade knit items, belts, jewelry, antiques, etc. There were also many families and couples strolling about, which gave us a good opportunity for covert people/attire watching.

I ate a doughnut with a disappointing allotment of Bavarian cream, while Swiss Mr. partook of a much more satisfying encased meat on a roll with onions and tomatoes.

Can you spot the alpenhorn?